The chairman of a U.S. House subcommittee on Africa has welcomed the release of 38 Ethiopian opposition members and called for the release of all political prisoners in the country.

U.S. Representative Donald Payne issued a statement Friday saying he hopes the release of opposition leaders and activists this week will trigger a new, peaceful democratic process in Ethiopia.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced the release of the prisoners Friday in the capital, Addis Ababa.  A three-judge High Court panel had sentenced the group to death Monday. 

The charges against them, inciting violence and attempting to overthrow the government, were related to protests against the 2005 elections. 

Representative Payne has authored a bill in Congress that calls on the Ethiopian government to release political prisoners and support democratic reforms in the country or face losing U.S. security aid.

Opposition groups say the 2005 election was rigged to keep Mr. Zenawi in power.  Ethiopian security forces killed at least 193 people while stopping the protests.

One of those released Friday, former Ethiopian President Negasso Gilada, says the cases never should have gone to court.  He says he views the releases as just another power play by the government.

Several other defendants received prison sentences between 18 months and 18 years. The government has said it would consider clemency appeals for them